the black protest

Carlos Zilio, GRITO SURDO, 1970, felt-tip pen on paper, 50x35


Class and race were never combined in the same way, after the breakdown of the slave-owning social order and the slave-owning mode of production

The extremes mark the relations of the black with the existing racial order. This order has changed over time. It is not the same thing to rebel against the racial order under the slave mode of production, then, when free labor is implanted and it tears apart many of the asymmetrical patterns of human relations (including racial ones); and later, in the 1920s and 1940s, or even today. The black cannot be excluded from such transformations in the patterns of race relations, with which a part of the black population has always been in conscious tension. However, he could not defeat the asymmetry in race relations, the racial inequities and racial inequalities that he tried to destroy. However, there has always been one constant: at one extreme, the activism of those who openly contested; on the other hand, resentment swallowed up with hatred or humility, but which was translated in the form of accommodation – which I came to designate as passive racial capitulation.

The two most significant historical expressions of this activism appear to be linked to the spontaneous social movements that erupted, for example, in São Paulo in the 1920s until the mid-1940s, and what emerges in connection with the social awareness of a racism that, without being institutional (as in the United States or South Africa), had equally devastating consequences. The question of whether or not racism is institutional or camouflaged is less important than what it represents in the reproduction of racial inequality, the racial concentration of wealth, culture and power, the submission of blacks, as a “race”, to economic exploitation, exclusion from better jobs and better wages, from schools, from social competition with whites of the same social class, etc., and the reduction of the majority of the black mass to “dirty work” and living conditions that confirm the stereotype that “black people are really good for nothing else”.

This sociological understanding of the subject reveals that class and race were never combined in the same way, after the breakdown of the slave-owning social order and the slave-owning mode of production. Under competitive capitalism, the black emerged from the basements of society and, for many, it seemed that he would catch up with the white with speed, despite “color prejudice” and racial discrimination. Race was not taken as a consistent and enduring social entity, as if slavery had been held in thin air. Even authors such as Caio Prado Júnior, from a historical perspective, and Emílio Willems, from a sociological perspective, understood that capital went in search of work and the passage from slave and freedman to salaried employee would be automatic. It was not and, thanks to that, the latent rebellion of the 1910s and 1920s generated attempts to organize the protest, to fight for incorporation into the class society in formation and expansion and to oppose to the racial ideology of the whites of the dominant classes a peculiar ideology of blacks and mulattoes (or, more correctly, a racial counter-ideology, which I describe in the fourth chapter of The integration of black people into class society). Forging a counter-ideology was a feat, given the social conditions in which blacks and mulattoes lived in São Paulo. Under monopoly capitalism, companies underwent profound changes in their dimensions, organization and functioning. A vast population surplus was attracted by the monopoly capitalist mode of production in all regions of Brazil. Among the migrant masses, black and mestizo contingents increased. Monopoly capitalism will occupy a vast army of active workers. The contrasts between class and race become sharp. The occupational system opens at two ends for blacks. En masse, in menial jobs, such as those of "pawns" and civil construction. Selectively, in intermediate positions, which required some cultural preparation and interracial competition, and at the apex of better occupations, as an exception, which would lose this character very slowly but with certain constancy.

Black protest of the 20s, 30s and 40s had its roots in the aftermath of World War I. Isms flourished in cities like São Paulo. The black entered the historical current and wondered why the immigrant had been successful and the black mass continued to be relegated to an inferior and iniquitous condition. This gave rise to the first spontaneous surveys of the “black milieu”, carried out by black intellectuals; and the first blunt unmaskings. The “color prejudice” appears in black social consciousness as a historical formation. Neither the polls were superficial nor the responses contingent. The black person elaborates a racial X-ray of Brazilian society and it is based on the results of this X-ray that he rebels against paternalism, clientelism and the expectation of conformism of whites from the dominant classes. The polls are tough, because they call black people into question. The black collaborated, unconsciously, with the white to maintain and reproduce the racial order that had been absorbed by the class regime (the parasitism on the black woman, the abandonment of the wife and children, the lack of interest in absorbing institutions that served as support economic and social success of immigrants – such as the family – the fear of facing hidden color prejudice, the acceptance of being placed on the margins of civil society and deceived, etc.). Deep down, two basic revulsions arise: the one of conforming to the prevailing conditions of life; that of conforming to the simplistic ideas that the black man had opened before him the road that would grant him citizenship and all that he could achieve through it. The two nonconformities presupposed the criticism of prejudice and the condemnation of discrimination, which prejudice seemed to justify but which were not its product. Prejudice and discrimination had the same historical origin and performed complementary functions, which reinforced the racial domination of whites and the social compulsion to keep blacks in their place, that is, to ward off any possibility of racial rebellion. It is true that the black activist intellectual ended up assuming the position of champion of order: he embodied the conscience of values ​​(or mores) who sustained the social order, without the white inconsistencies.

Nevertheless, several black associations and entities and the social movement emerged around here, which led to criticism of the current legal order and its harmlessness (and falsehood) for black people. In this way, a racial ideology of its own was developed, which did not manage to spread beyond the active non-conformist minorities (who organized and operated spontaneous social movements for racial reform within the order), and certain dispositions to face the manifestations of prejudices and discrimination in concrete situations. It was about something broader and deeper than a social ferment. It was an incipient racial rupture. However, the Estado Novo put an end to such forms of dissatisfaction and racial concerns, which bothered the whites of the ruling classes (who saw in the events the awakening of a “black racism”!) and did not get to count on the sympathy of the other strata. of the white population (including leftist parties, who saw the “black problem” as an exclusively class issue and, therefore, as a “social problem”). The movement does not die. It hibernates, under the external pressure of the dictatorship, which in fact, recomposed the capacity for oligarchic domination of the dominant social classes and the white race.

The end of World War II had spread new impulses of radicalization. Those on the bottom clung to the dream of democratizing civil society and the State – and were advancing directly towards leading the emergence of a democracy of expanded participation. Populism encourages these aspirations and reinforces them. Populism encourages these aspirations and reinforces them. However, the previous movement does not come out of hibernation. New opportunities for work and social ascension unfolded for sectors that could resume racial unrest through multiple classification routes in the occupational system. The “colored middle class”, which was a social fiction, has become accessible and will spread at a slow pace. Some blacks were successful enough to reach entrepreneurial positions and the starting point of the constitution of a black bourgeoisie, very thin but able to escape the most unfavorable conjunction in the relationship between race and class. These are the historical roots of the “new black”, which would repel racial protest and defend the idea that “black movements are bad luck”. The working black mass submerges in the class struggle, which reached density in the 50s and early 60s. At both poles, modalities of self-assertion appeared that buried the tradition of passive capitulation (which would be repudiated with increasing intransigence, including involving the identification of the “black trasfuga” as a harmful personality, a practice that came from previous movements, but did not become generalized). The “new black” intended the social equality conquered as a natural process. He turned to his own refinement, to the consolidation of the family, the education of the children, the ideal of buying a house of his own, the disposition to exclude “inferior blacks” from his relationships, of negative social visibility, and he distanced himself from the white as a symbol of acquisition of status social and prestige: he devoted himself to safeguarding the levels of income and life achieved and to protecting them through the formation of his own associations, etc. Therefore, bourgeois morality crosses the borders that divorced the “black world” from the “white world”, but at very high psychological and racial costs. A painful racial isolation thus appears, because the “problem” was not only one of class but also of race. This did not affect the “new Negro” and his heroic decision to repeat the history of “successful” European immigrants.

The children of these families arrived at schools, which before would have been a mirage. They will experience shocks and disappointments and participate in dramatic human conflicts. Disassociated from the tradition of previous movements, they did not place themselves in the condition of champions of order – and even that would not be possible, under the realities of monopoly capitalism. Engulfed in intense contact with young whites, they enjoyed greater acceptance than their parents (differential acceptance varies with social category, class, political fraternity, age, etc.). They were more or less disoriented and showed their disorientation in the university newspapers (as in the Porandubas from PUC-SP). Their experience of concrete life does not compare to that of former militants. They would not be satisfied with the initial discoveries and explanations that surrounded the first upheaval of black consciousness. In turn, the black worker was immersed in a day-to-day life in which the reality of the class highlighted the negative perceptions of the race. They sensed and sometimes managed to explain concretely the artifices that made blacks a source of the reserve army and economic super-exploitation, at the same time that, through the union and the party, they got to the bottom of the question. Social reform is linked to the democratic revolution, to movements aimed at combating the collective repression of those from below. Without the cultural means to see things more clearly than the children-families of the “new black”, they relied on the collective experience of everyday social confrontation against order. The black intellectual stood between the two polarizations. Whether he had one or another class background, he received the impact of the ebullitions that came from outside, of the isms of the 60s in Europe or the United States and he became prone to see race as the axis of the existence of an institutional racism of various kinds. Brazilian. Poets, mostly, mostly libertarians or socialists, went to extreme radicalization. Some, utopianly, fantasized reality and the dream of an independent black insurgency appeared as a vague possibility. Others, more deeply rooted in revolutionary practice and theory, associated class and race and pointed to salute not in social reform, but in the revolution against order, in which the element of race finds its proper place, as an accelerator and deepener of the transformation of society. Some, finally, sublimated their frustrations and projected them onto a purely aesthetic and abstract plane, realizing themselves as black creative agents, but pulling the inventive process out of the day-to-day torments.

It is clear that a society in which monopoly capitalism absorbs larger portions of the workforce and opens up several channels of social ascension for black people unfolds alterations of racial accommodation that did not exist in the recent past. On the other hand, the germs of a black bourgeoisie flourished, more on the middle-class level. But there were some black millionaires. As in the United States, but in a different historical way, there is at the top an uneven parallelism between race and class, which causes the black to emerge among those at the top in their own and more or less closed niches, at the bottom of the “rich whites” . It so happens that the monopoly capitalism of the periphery does not contain dynamism to merge race and class. A movement in this direction depends on proletarian and socialist changes or revolutions. The naked fact is the existence of an immense mass of free and semi-free workers, in the city and in the countryside. It is, therefore, among those at the bottom, where the class struggle crackles with oscillations but with increasing vigor, that race becomes a strong factor of social friction. To problems that could be solved “within the order”, that reach the class but are outside the scope of the race. Race is configured as the gunpowder in the magazine, the factor that in a context of confrontation can take the radicalism inherent to class much further. As I wrote in the preface to the aforementioned book, it is race that will define the standard of democracy, in breadth and depth, that will correspond to the demands of the Brazilian situation. Today, by the way, it is clear that reflection is valid both for a bourgeois democracy and for a popular and proletarian democracy – that is, from capitalism to socialism. The PT and all proletarian left parties have learned part of this truth and will soon learn the whole truth. Those from below must be seen as a totality and their revolutionary political dynamisms, if or when unleashed, will naturally impose themselves on parties that want to “transform the world” and “create a new society”.

The most radical black intellectuals and militants already have an intuition of this probable fact. For this reason, they did not return to the objectives and values ​​of the old black movements. They respect and cultivate them as part of black memory, but question the present and the near future to define their positions. The same reason appears in a change in the way of relating to the “African-American radicalism” of the 60s and with African countries, which allow discovering their racial and cultural identities, and with the theoretical equations that distance the reach revolutionary of the class of the revolutionary impetus of the race (which induces those who are Marxists to enrich the theory, making it more comprehensive and adequate to the concrete historical conditions of the periphery). In short, the challenge is not to oppose white institutional racism to black libertarian racism. It presents itself in the need to forge an inclusive egalitarian society, in which no racism or form of oppression can subsist and flourish. Still there, the objective is a libertarian socialist way of being that transcends Eurocentrism and drives the collective self-emancipation of blacks to give equal weight to equality, freedom and fraternity, within a multiracial society. It is not a matter of repeating history in another way, charging whites of the same or other classes the price of the outrages born of the “hegemony of the white race”. Yes, to create a new history, whose germs appear in working communities and in nations in transition to socialism.

*Florestan Fernandes (1920-1995) was professor emeritus at FFLCH-USP, professor at PUC-SP and federal deputy for the PT. Author, among other books, of The integration of black people into class society (Rile up).

Originally published in the magazine Sao Paulo in Perspective, in Apr./Jun. 1988.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table